Friday, February 22, 2013

FFF: "Way Past Joking Time"

(The folks at Flash Fiction Friday apparently want us to hear the word of the Lord, because this week's challenge is about dem bones dem bones dem dry bones. This story is called "Way Past Joking Time")

No matter how tightly I closed my windows, the lights still came through. Flashes of red and blue leaked onto my ceiling, making all sorts of spooky shadows. I still felt sick, so sick that I almost never wanted to eat again. I was laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, watching a bubble of red light chase a bubble of blue around in a lazy oval. I had taken a shower and changed into pajamas, like my Mom said I should, but everything felt itchy and too hot and wrong.

They wouldn't leave me alone. First the police came through, a black woman and a handsome guy with a funny looking beard, telling me gently that they didn't blame me, that it wasn't my fault, and then going over everything again and again. In between police visits, Mom would come in and try to say something and just wind up blubbering, and then Dad would come in a few minutes later and just kind of stare, putting his hand on my shin for a minute, then getting up and leaving again. The police took all of Lindsay's stuff, even the pillow she was going to use, which was actually mine. But I didn't say anything.

Lindsay was the only girl I had met so far that was my age, and since I was the new kid, I hung on to her like a barnacle. We had been playing outside, our giggling too much for Mom, kicking a ball around and talking about nothing. Lindsay was taller than me and a little bit stronger, and she kicked the ball at me hard. She was that kind of person, the kind of person who would do something just because, just to see what you did. It hurt a little- the ball hit me high on my thigh, and it slapped against my stomach too. I was a little mad, but I didn't show it. Instead, I wound up and kicked it back, as hard as I could, half hoping I could sting her leg back.

The ball, a new one my Dad bought after the World Cup, went high, over Lindsay's head and over the gray fence that separated our yard from his. Our neighbor was strange. He didn't have any kids, and you never saw him doing anything like washing his car or mowing his grass or even walking around. He came and went at weird times, never home when the other adults were, and sometimes, when I couldn't sleep, I would stare at his house, waiting to see something happen- a light go on, the glow of a TV, something. Nothing ever did.

Nobody said anything, but you just got this feeling of wierdness, of ghosts and monsters and horrible things that might happen if you went in his yard. Grace Park, who lives across the street, said that she went up to his front door to sell Girl Scout cookies once, and they knew he was home, because they had seen him go in, but they knocked and knocked and he never came to the door. She said she saw bones in his yard when she walked in, but Grace tended to exaggerate sometimes. It was just weird.

Lindsay smiled at me after the ball went over. I started feeling sick right then, ready for another lecture from my Dad about how hard he worked for his money and how I should be more careful.

Lindsay said, "Dare ya to go get it!"

It was like daring me to flap my arms and fly to the moon. "No!," I said quickly. "Are you crazy?"

"Nope!," she said. She was a really good tree climber, and she was up and over the wall in a second. By the time I said "Don't!," she was gone.

I didn't hear anything at all after that. I figured she was going to sneak up on me and try to scare me, so after a few minutes, I gave up and went inside. I washed up, taking extra long, listening for her footsteps in the hall, determined that she wouldn't get me. I came downstairs, expecting her to jump out of a closet or come rushing out of the downstairs bathroom or to burst in through the back door. She never did.

My mother asked me where she was as soon as I came into the kitchen, and I spilled it all in a nervous rush. They told me never to go over there, and I never did, and I tried to tell them that I warned her and suddenly everything was exploding with movement and sound. My Dad got up and marched out the front door. My Mom called Lindsay's parents, and the Parks, and the Mitchells, and nobody had seen her. The police kept asking me if I heard a car go down the street, but I just couldn't remember if I did or not.

Dad came back, panting and red faced, and saying that there wasn't anybody there, and his car, a green van, was gone. Then Dad mentioned bones, too, and I knew Grace wasn't exaggerating. They called the police, and the lights came, and all the questions, and the madness, and the tears. I stopped listening to them, waiting for someone to ask me something. All I could see was Lindsay's sneakers disappearing as she dropped onto the other side of the fence, her devilish grin when she dared me.

When the police came in and put all her stuff in bags, I watched them do it, making notes on a clipboard as they went, cleaning away her backpack, her clothes, her brush and her slippers and her stuffed toad and her One Direction magazine. My room looked like she had never been there, but I could see the absence, the space where she was supposed to be. I wondered why my kick didn't go straight, banging off the fence instead of sailing over it, or why I couldn't have gone with her across the fence, or why I hadn't just told Mom right away instead of waiting.

I didn't know what had happened, but it was way past joking time, which meant it had to be something bad. I stared at the lights some more, trying not to think about what it could be, not wishing that it had been me instead of Lindsay, but kind of wishing that it had been, too.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

100 Word Song/Master Class: "Baby Monitor"

[Our metal pal Leeroy, who has switched to a different viscosity of oil for the frigid winter months while picking up for his humanoid buddy Lance, who is busier than the condom salesman on Valentine's Day, brings us Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" for this week's 100 Word Song. In addition to that, Professor Sudden SAM teaches her first Master Class with a line from Julia Glass' "Three Junes", which is the first line of this piece, which a clever combination of both prompts called "Baby Monitor"]

Clever how the cosmos can, in a single portent, be ingratiating yet sadistic. "You can do this," the universe tells you, unctuous and smarmy. "Never mind the time required, the money, the energy, the life force, your complete lack of qualifications, you can handle this. If a teen in Arkansas can handle it, so can you." So you struggle onwards, greeting the 3am crying jags with a forced smile, pretending you are happy to see the tiny person when your every cell screams for sleep. You're tired, and frustrated, and you want to give up, but you won't back down.

VV: "Good Morning Good Morning"

Our friend Velvet, who is kind to old women and small children and always pays her taxes on time, slips us a 100 Word Challenge this week with the word "Surviving". This is called "Good Morning Good Morning".

She smiled at me as I came in through the front door. It was the same ritual, the unofficial beginning of my work shift.

"Good morning," I said to Dawn. "How are you?"

"Fine," she usually said, expertly balancing phone calls and incoming email, her blue eyes excited with the prospect of another day, plunging into life.

"Surviving," she said today. Her eyes were puffy, with dark circles. I searched her face for clues.

"How are you?," she asked.

"Fine," I lied.

I wanted to ask, but I didn't stop. I wasn't that kind of person, really. Neither was she.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

TWC: "Trials"

(My Trifectan friends, who agree with George Thorogood that "one aint enough, Jack, you better make it three", provide Trifecta Nation with the word "exhaust" this week. This is called "Trials".)

"We need to exhaust all the avenues here. There are combinations we haven't tried, and work is going on all the time. New biologics are being found. I was just at a conference where a French oncologist was showing off a new compound he was using on exactly this kind of disease. There are lots and lots of options."

Her voice was smooth and soft, like I imagined her hair would be. I wondered what she would say if I asked her if I could touch it. It would probably be against the rules. It was fastened on top of her head in a tortoiseshell clip, and it framed her face with very gentle waves. A strand or two had come loose, and I could see them bounce about as she moved her head. She kept her knees tightly together as she faced me, her hands open and flat on the tops of her thighs. I looked guiltily at the tiny dark triangle where her skirt gapped between her knees. The line of the hem was razor sharp. A pencil skirt, I remember hearing someone call it. Her toes pointed straight at me in her modest black shoes.

"May I have your permission to apply for one of the trials Dr. Patel is running downstairs?"

No, I thought, I've had it. Just let me go. Give me some painkillers and let me off of this ride, and I'll go have a jam session with Kurt Cobain in heaven. It's my decision, and I just want all the foolishness about appointments and drugs and infusions over with. No. It's over.

I looked into her eyes, brown and wide and earnest, and I could see how much she wanted me to say yes.

"Sure," I said without realizing it. I never could say no to a pretty face.

100 Word Song: "Distance"

(Our friend Leeroy,whose electronic door I have not darkened in a while for no good reason, along with his carbon based life form friend Lance, present us with Billy Idol's "John Wayne" this week for the 100 Word Song. This is called "Distance".)

Modern technology brought her voice right next to me, but I could still feel every single mile that separated us.

"I'd save you all this suffering if I could."

"I know," she said. She sounded like she had just finished crying. Or was just about to start.

"There's nothing I can do?"

"Not unless you have $12,900."

I didn't. "I'm sorry. I feel helpless. I hate feeling this way. I want to save you. That's what I am supposed to do. I'm a guy."

"I'm not looking for a hero," she said softly. "I'm just looking for a friend."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

SPE: "Better Than Us"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, kgwaite gave me this prompt: "Pick a four-syllable word you don't know out of the dictionary. Write a word around that prompt."
I gave Ankita this prompt: "My father's theory is: Listen, if someday you're going to tell someone to dig a ditch, you should know how to do it yourself." -Donald Trump Jr.]

(This prompt puzzled me a bit. It's almost metaphysical. I probably have a dictionary somewhere, but I'm not entirely sure where. More puzzling is the idea of it. There aren't a whole lot of words, in my experience, that I don't know, or haven't heard and have a general idea of the meaning of. Further, once I find the word and read the definition, I know it, thus negating the intent of the prompt. So I settled on "sequestration", mostly because it fit.)

Staff Sargeant Kelly poked her head through the door. That was unusual- we could go through a typical day without exchanging more than a dozen words, which suited us both just fine. Her hair was pulled back tight, and I could see the hint of makeup around her eyes.

"Colonel?," she asked. I wasn't doing anything of deep importance, but I was busy enough to be slightly annoyed by the interruption.


"A Ms. Doreen Clarke is here to see you, sir."

"She doesn't have an appointment," I said uselessly. She knew that as well as I did.

"No, sir. Who is she, sir?"

I sighed. I knew Doreen would wait all day if she had to.

"I served with her late husband." I took a deep breath. "Show her in, would you?"

"Yes, sir," she said, her head ducking away. The door opened to reveal Doreen, the picture of middle aged health in a tan pencil skirt, flat black shoes, and a muted green blouse, all clean and pressed and neat looking. One thing military wives learn to do, I thought, is look put together.

"Doreen," I said warily. "How are you?"

She walked in and sat in my office chair without being invited. "Allen," she said evenly, "we need to talk."

I swallowed. "OK."

"Where is it?," she said. "I haven't gotten anything since August."

"I know," I said. I started to walk across my office. I had a Redskins calendar hanging on my olive drab file cabinet, with Sunday's Eagles game circled. I had two tickets down low that I had won in an office pool. "I had been meaning to call and explain."

"Explain?" Doreen said. "Explain what? What's to explain?"

"Sequestration." I stared out the window onto a parking lot, watching a bird come down and begin to wrestle with a discarded potato chip.

"What? You mean the budget crap that's on the news? That?" She uncrossed her legs and then recrossed them. She was leaning back now, her face skeptical and questioning.

"Yes," I said. "They're all over me, questioning every cent. I can't squeeze out overages like I used to. The cuts are coming, and we don't know how deep yet, so we are all down to skeletons. Bare bones on everything. I can't play fast and loose with numbers right now."

"Which means what?" Doreen said acidly. "Bottom line it. Am I just SOL? Or what?"

I smiled at the acronym. "Of course not," I said. I reached down for my briefcase, pulling it up onto my desk. "I told you I owe Robert my life," I said. "And I take care of people who take care of me."

"You did," Doreen said. "And I believed you."

"It's true, Dor," I said plaintively. "It is true."

"Don't call me that," she spat. I took out my checkbook and my Mont Blanc, one of the extravagances I allowed myself.

"A check, Allen?," she said in disbelief.

"I don't carry that kind of cash around, Dor," I said.

"Fine," she said.

I wrote the amount and signed it, noting it carefully in the register.

"What are you writing in there?," she said. "Bastard child?"

I swallowed again. "I use acronyms all the time. Marie is used to it by now. Besides, she never looks at the checkbook."

"Am I going to have to chase you every month now?"

"No, Dor," I said. "Doreen," I quickly added. "No. I'll make sure it is there on time next month."

"It better be," she added. "I don't want to have to go through channels."

"We discussed this, Doreen," I said, putting a little iron in my voice. "It's better she thinks Robert is her father. She ends up worse off if we do it that way. We all do."

"You do, certainly," she said, and then smiled grimly. "I know, Allen. You're right. I just hate lying to her."

"I do too." I tore out the check and came around the desk to give it to her. She stood up quickly, snatching it from my hand without ceremony. She folded it once and slid it into her purse.

"Just mail it next time," she said.

"OK," I said. She started to walk across the room. She still had the strutting, hip swinging walk of the young woman she was, all those years ago at 29 Palms. She stopped and looked back at me, her voice as cold as the onrushing autumn breeze.

"Aren't you even going to ask how she is?"

"How is she?"

"Elizabeth is fine," she said evenly. "She's going to be a better person than either one of us turned out to be," she said, opening the door and then letting it slam shut behind her.